A few weeks ago an uninvited guest asked to visit my classroom. My principal called me over the intercom between periods. (“Uh oh, what had I done?” I thought). He said a teacher was on vacation from Kentucky visiting some relatives. His sister-in-law happened to work for my school district. He taught AP Language and Composition (APLaC), like myself, and wanted to observe an APLaC class during his vacation. Could he observe my class? Some teachers would be resistant to this, but I embrace having visitors. As educators, we rarely get to watch each other in action. “Sure, Why not?” I said.
As he entered my room, I warmly greeted him giving my best Lumiere impersonation. He sheepishly sat in the back of my class and said he didn’t want to interrupt.
Honestly, my lesson demonstrated little of my instruction. It was primarily student driven. My students used the New York Times website Room for Debate to prep for the synthesis essay. A little context: The APLaC exam consists of three free-response essays – argumentative, rhetorical analysis, and synthesis. The synthesis essay asks students to take a position on an issue by “synthesizing” 6-8 texts provided to them.
While my students analyzed a Youtube video as an opening activity, I quietly explained today’s lesson plan to my guest. He was intrigued. Kentucky is one of the first states to implement the Common Core, and he said there had been a heavy focus in his school district to instruct synthesis. In a synthesis essay, students must demonstrate they can meet the Common Core writing standards by both “introducing precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims…” and “develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both.”
I told him in today’s class he would see six students portray different voices from a debate they selected on the Room for Debate website. At the end of the debate, the rest of the class would be asking questions, trying to expose weaknesses in each speaker’s claim. He asked me why I decided to have a live debate instead of having the students just write an essay. My rationale was two-fold: First, when the students pre-write the synthesis essay they must immerse themselves in a conversation that has already taken place. Then, they write their own position in an essay. Secondly, by having a live debate, my students get to see that conversation in action. I added that I assessed the Room for Debate assignment in two different ways. I divided my class in groups of six. Each week one group is assigned to be the debaters and they select the debate for the week. The rest of the class has to turn in a “mock synthesis essay” where they take their own position on the week’s topic and compose an introduction and two-body paragraphs. I did this because I could see my students’ development of their argument in three body paragraphs, without grading an entire essay.
Today’s debate topic was: “Are standardized tests a good way to prepare students for future success?” The six girls who debated did a fantastic job clearly stating their speaker’s claim, citing evidence from each speaker’s commentary, engaging each other in conversation, and pointing out logical fallacies in their arguments. Listen to this memorable exchange:
Student 1: “When you argue that ‘tests are widely accepted as an acceptable assessment of student progress’ isn’t that an over-generalization? Doesn’t that just lead to teaching to the test?”
Student 2: “Isn’t it an over-generalization to assume that all teachers only ‘teach to the test?’”
Hoots and hollers filled the room.
After the bell rung, my visitor confided he was “blown away” by my students. But, he had one looming question. This was an AP class. Would it work for core kids?
I admitted I had never done this with a core class. However, I recalled some lasting advice my cooperating teacher imparted to me when I was student teaching – “You teach, they model, and then step out of the way.” That’s what Room for Debate exemplified to me. He shook my hand. Thanked me for my time, and added in his slow Kentucky drawl: “Sometimes a little birdie has to find her wings by falling out of the tree” then, left my room with a wink.